Geography Lessons

John Haber
in New York City

John at Disneyland and the Casino

I have seen the future, and it is cuddly. It came on my visit to an artificial universe in miniature, in Downtown Disney.

In fact, I must be on a roll. Just a few years before, I saw another New York, in a city that intensifies the danger as it trades grit for sleaze. In gambling, a trick is cheating, but plastic is for all to see. Downtown Disney (photo by me, 2011)In Las Vegas, the best fakers have learned to lay their cards on the table.

The art of Disney

If I seem a little goofy right now, I have an excuse. I spent much of a week across the street from Disneyland. One could see it looming, as the skeleton of a roller coaster shrouded behind locked gates. One could see its mirror in the arches of the Anaheim convention center, where teenage girls were competing as tightly choreographed cheerleaders, in between screaming as loud as they could outside my hotel. One could imagine it as a painting by Gary Simmons bleached into whiteness. Or one could just go shopping.

I finally did, on my last day. I was attending a chemistry conference, but no, as an editor, not for research on the intersection of art and science. I was tempted to slip off at the end, perhaps to see if Jeffrey Deitch had managed to bring Soho celebrity culture ever closer to Hollywood. But I was working on the future of chemical education and busy angling for free coffee and cookies, and anyway I would have turned up on the wrong day, when LA MOCA is closed. Besides, it could never have matched painting from the Norton Simon, which I had seen recently at the Frick and in person just a few years ago. That left looking for art in all the wrong places—in other words, shopping.

With luck, you never noticed that I was away. I do not work nights on the road, but I do try to write well in advance of hitting "Publish." In fact, on the plane out I was writing about German Expressionism and "Degenerate Art." Call it coincidence or not, but I was prepared—or so I thought. Even with theme restaurants and a hotel as Swiss chalet, right down to fake ice on the roof, locking a corner of Southern California into perpetual winter, I almost never found the road to excess. Instead, I kept seeing broad avenues with hotels and chain food lazing in an awful whiteness.

But art there is, if one knows where to look. The World of Disney (naturally, a gift shop) has a whole aisle for "the art of Disney," and it is not pretty. You have seen that kind of psychedelic landscape painting in shopping malls often enough before. Vinyl shopping bags had more dazzling grids after Andy Warhol, shelves upon shelves tumbled into pop culture repetition, and a few doors away a still finer Mickey greeted me, in nearly four feet of white ceramic. Downtown Disney (photo by me, 2011)Think there is a special place in hell for Tom Otterness, Tom Sachs at the Noguchi Museum, and ©Murakami? Nope, only Downtown Disney.

All that is a shame, for Disney once meant something amazing, and sometimes it still does. Babysitting a few years back, I discovered how far Snow White in 1937 or Fantasia in 1940 was from my memories. What was that silky shading and warm color? When did a storm rustling in the forest give way to predictable 3D robotics? I still had fun in Anaheim, seeing how cash and questionable taste had turned Prairie School design, piled boulders, and a broad window into a humongous hotel lobby. Take that, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Guggenheim.

And as I traveled, April Fool's Day was coming right up. Was the joke on me all along? I had better go back to other universes and other model art. I could settle for another week in Chelsea—or for more "Otherworldly" simulations at the Museum of Arts and Design. I could be home, feeling way too serious, like a real New Yorker. Or I could be in Vegas.

Leavings of Las Vegas

At the New York-New York Hotel, elevator cabs and hallway wallpaper imitate the details of famous skyscrapers. Those same landmarks cover the exterior. It is a façade of façades, a skyline as compressed and tasteless as instant soup mix. Within, lobby cafes make up a sanitized Greenwich Village street scene, while the Bronx and Queens become areas of the casino. I guess they've always been a crap shoot. Just as appropriately, Soho is the souvenir shop.

Outside, another Brooklyn Bridge stretches its walkway wide enough to encourage casino traffic. Walking across the original, one feels gloriously open to the sky while immersed in the delicate strength of supporting cables. But there is no openness in Las Vegas and no free support, unless your plastic has a line of credit. That leaves the joys of sheer fakery. Only the terrors are real, especially for hotel guests. A roller coaster goes by their window every 110 seconds, more efficient than even Disneyland could manage.

I took the ride, ducked in my seat the whole way, and held my glasses. But Vegas would be loud and scary without a roller coaster. Everywhere slot machines buzz and chime, matching the deafening visual noise all around of neon, glitter, and dark shadow. The sounds are there right at dawn, and so are the stereotypes. At every hour, cocktail waitresses trot by half awake themselves in uniform, the kind that pushes their breasts up. Hey, somebody has to. Another Manhattan skyline?

Downtown and the Strip could as well be one six-mile-long casino, just changing slightly in decor as you navigate from hotel to hotel. Prefer half-naked women in togas? Try Caesar's Palace. Prefer yet another way to confuse inside and outside, day and night? Try the Galleria downtown. Surrounding them all, a flat expanse of auto shops and malls stretches out as far as the eye can see, baking in the sun, 100 degrees in the rare and desperately needed shade.

You can eat well if you can afford it and if you can stand one more knock-off in a city of knock-offs. And there are plenty—Emeril's from New Orleans, the Cactus Cafe from Sante Fe, Spago from LA, Morton's from Chicago, the Palm from New York, the coffee shop and bar from hell. But it would be another kind of fakery to call Vegas a den of iniquity. Forget the indulgence and those waitresses. Think of Disneyland for an older crowd, just another part of capitalism run amok. As they turn over the dollar bills, visitors and staff don't look at all like handsome young drunks, compulsive gamblers, or amusing kitsch. Except for the cheap Hispanic labor, waiters and guests alike are well scrubbed and overweight.

It is not just middle America that glamorizes Las Vegas. The alienated love to imagine that they have taken risks to get there, but this is no risk and all obligation. Forget the movies or Hunter Thompson. This is TV. Matronly visitors feed their quarters into the slots with the same unsmiling expression of a night transfixed in front of the tube. They have stumbled on the soullessness of a new machine.

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I visited Anaheim the last week in March 2001. I no longer recall when I went to Vegas, but could it, too, have been for a chemistry conference? It is the story of my life. Once again, I cannot find the right chemistry.


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